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Victorian England met a South African choir with praise, paternalism and prejudice

This choir from South Africa spent two years singing in Britain, and even performed for Queen Victoria in 1891. But their journey did not end well.
Universal History Archive
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Universal Images Group via Getty Images
This choir from South Africa spent two years singing in Britain, and even performed for Queen Victoria in 1891. But their journey did not end well.

When sisters Charlotte and Katie Manye found out they were going to England in 1891, they were overjoyed — "leaping and whirling ... in a dance of triumph" Katie Manye said of their journey.

"To England!" she recounts Charlotte shouting again, locking her arms in Katie's as they both "leapt upwards on one last burst of energy before falling exhausted to the floor."

Charlotte and Katie Manye were singers in a South African choir that traveled to England, Scotland and Ireland for a series of concerts between 1891 and 1893. The sisters' reaction to the news and some of the details of the trip are documented in The Calling of Katie Makanya, book drawn from a series of interviews Katie recorded later in life and compiled by Margaret McCord in 1995 — the daughter of a doctor with whom Katie worked for many years.

The story is receiving renewed attention because of a new dance performance touring Europe and North America this year called Broken Chord that imagines the choir's journey.

The trip's purpose was to raise money to build a technical college in South Africa, according to the 1891 program notes. The trip enchanted at least some audiences, but the choir also encountered the racism and paternalism of Victorian Britain.

South African singers Albert Jonas and John Xiniwe, of The African Choir, in a staged fishing scene, 1891. The choir, drawn from seven different South African tribes, toured Britain from 1891 to 1893 to raise funds for a technical college in their home country.
London Stereoscopic Company / Hutton Archive/Getty Images
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Hutton Archive/Getty Images
South African singers Albert Jonas and John Xiniwe, of The African Choir, in a staged fishing scene, 1891. The choir, drawn from seven different South African tribes, toured Britain from 1891 to 1893 to raise funds for a technical college in their home country.

Charlotte, age 20 in 1891 and working as a school teacher, and Katie, age 17, lived in Kimberley, famous for its diamond mines and the second largest town in South Africa, then a colony of Britain.

The Manye sisters were in a church choir that also sang at garden parties held by the town's white people. How the tour abroad came about is unclear. Katie said that a Mr. Howells from England came up with the idea of a tour under the supervision of English managers. Professor Veit Erlmann, a German musicologist who has written extensively about the choir, suggests that the idea came from missionaries and maybe some of the choir members themselves.

The South African choir comprised seven women and seven men: young, educated people, devout Christians, many of them taught in missions, including the progressive and liberal Lovedale College, in the eastern Cape.

Their choir had been formed as the '"African answer" to the Virginia Jubilee Singers, Erlmann says — a group of African-American performers led by Orpheus McAdoo, a professional singer. They had spent five years touring South Africa, performing religious folk songs closely associated with enslaved people in the United States.

At least one member of the South African choir had been to the Virginia choir's August 1890 performance in Kimberley: Josiah Semouse, a writer and post office clerk. His review encapsulates the kind of impact the group had on Black South Africans.

They "sang like angels," Semouse wrote, who then reflected on what he knew of the status of Black Americans. "Today they have their own schools and universities ... they are magistrates, judges, lawyers .... When will the day come when the African people will be like the Americans?"

Before heading to London, the South African choir toured around the Cape under the name the African Jubilee Chorus or Singers. One day, Mr. Howells announced something shocking, said Katie. He changed the choir's name to the African Native Choir, despite the choir's objections. He also added an offensive term to describe the choir (which NPR is not using). The entire name was subsequently used in ads and printed on concert programs. Katie said that Howells explained to them: "That's what you are, and the English ... will be curious to hear you sing."

To England!

The South African choir arrived in London, England, in June 1891.

South African journalist Zubeida Jaffer wrote a biography of Katie's sister Charlotte Manye Maxeke. Jaffer writes that the choir had arrived in a nation "steeped in imperial notions of superiority. Women were unable to vote, very few could attend university and most Britons had twisted notions about Africans."

The tour was organized by two English men — Walter Letty, the choir manager, and James Balmer, the musical director.

It's unclear exactly who funded the tour. Erlmann says it was probably Letty and Balmer, who would have either raised funds or put in their own money, along with two choir members who invested. One of them was Paul Xiniwe, an older singer and a successful businessman. The financial agreement, Katie said, included each singer getting "two pounds a week for spending money."

The choir's first performance was a few days after their arrival at the prestigious Crystal Palace, a huge cast iron and glass structure. The event was a competition for choirs, and close to 30,000 people attended, according to Jaffer.

The choir's appearance at the Crystal Palace was a triumph, Jaffer writes, with calls for encores.

Members of The African Choir pose for a group portrait with their English musical director James Balmer (far right), 1891.
London Stereoscopic Company / Hutton Archive/Getty Images
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Hutton Archive/Getty Images
Members of The African Choir pose for a group portrait with their English musical director James Balmer (far right), 1891.

After that first performance, the choir played many other concerts — in music halls, private homes and at weddings. At public concerts, half of their repertoire consisted of Christian hymns, arias and choruses popular at the time, sung in English. The rest were religious songs written by Black South African composers.

On July 3, 1891, The Standard newspaper described a "unique performance, and the audience followed the various items in the programme, some of which were sung in the native tongue, and others in almost faultless English, with warm tokens of interest and approval."

Queen Victoria asked them to perform for her at Osborne House, the Royal residence on the Isle of Wight, off the south coast of England.

As they traveled through England, the choir members were treated with a mix of intrigue, kindness and hostility.

Katie recalled how the Queen praised them highly after the July 24, 1891 performance, though one of her granddaughters made a comment using a derogatory term as she noted that she did not like people from Africa.

Children and adults stopped to stare at them in the streets. One press review described them as: "Black as black could be, but ... of gentle manners and charming address."

"Charlotte laughed scornfully," Katie remembered. "'What do these English people expect? To see a lot of savages?"

But choir members reported that some people did treat them well. In September 1891, Charlotte Manye gave an interview in The Review of Reviews, a monthly journal, in which she said:

"Let us be in Africa even as we are in England. Here we are treated as men and women. Yonder we are but as cattle. Can you not make your people at the Cape as kind and just as your people here?"

A woman named Mrs. Keighley paid for Katie to get prescription glasses. For the first time, "the printed words no longer looked like chicken scratchings in the dust," she said.

A grueling pace

In October 1891, the choir left London to travel to big industrial cities in the north of England, then into Scotland and over to Ireland by boat.

For five months they traveled constantly, rarely staying in one place more than two or three days.

Katie talked of the routine: "The girls unpacked, washed their clothes, ironed, rehearsed, sang, ate, slept and packed .... And they grew increasingly peevish."

Tensions mounted between choir members, especially Charlotte and Eleanor Xiniwe. The two got into an altercation; the former was charged with assault and had to pay a fine.

There was personal tragedy. The body of a stillborn baby was found in the trunk of one woman, Katie said. No one even knew of the pregnancy.

On top of the rigorous schedule, the choir was also not paid the two pounds a week they had expected. They received "only ten shillings," said Katie. Promises by Balmer "to make it up to them from the proceeds of their concerts once they became better known" were not kept.

Letty and Balmer said the lack of payment was because tour costs were much higher than profits from the concerts – a claim dismissed by Paul Xiniwe.

"They say they can show their books and accounts in order to prove that they have been losing money," Xiniwe wrote in the South Africa journal in September 1892. "It is a perfectly easy thing to put any figures in books!"

One of the members of The African Choir holds a mirror, 1891.
London Stereoscopic Company / Hutton Archive/Getty Images
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Hutton Archive/Getty Images
One of the members of The African Choir holds a mirror, 1891.

The Xiniwes and two other members of the choir left after a year to return to South Africa, says Erlmann. The rest carried on for another year, despite the emotional and financial difficulties.

In the end, the managers never paid them their wages, according to Erlmann. They also completely abandoned the choir, he says, leaving them penniless in a London hotel. They could get only back to South Africa after a British missionary society raised funds for them.

Broken Chord, the performance about the choir's journey, was created by South African choreographer and dancer Gregory Maqoma and musical director Thuthuka Sibisi. Maqoma says he was captivated by the story because it is so modern. "Broken Chord kind of morphed from being just the story of the choir. It became about the resonance to the now, to what we are navigating today - around race, around migration, around intolerance, around the things that we are always struggling about," Maqoma says.

South African singers Albert Jonas and John Xiniwe, of The African Choir, in a staged photographic portrait.
London Stereoscopic Company / Hutton Archive/Getty Images
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Hutton Archive/Getty Images
South African singers Albert Jonas and John Xiniwe, of The African Choir, in a staged photographic portrait.

Another tour to the U.S.

Despite the hardships of the tour to Britain, Charlotte Manye and some of the original choir members went on a second tour two years later, this time to the United States, according to Katie Manye. Again, it ended badly, Erlmann says, with managers once again abandoning the tour, leaving the choir to fend for themselves.

The African Methodist Church, however, offered Charlotte a scholarship to Wilberforce University in Ohio, Erlmann says. In 1903 she became the first black South African woman to earn a degree there. At Wilberforce, she also met and married fellow South African Marshall Maxeke, Jaffer says.

On her return to South Africa, Charlotte became a political and social activist, campaigning against colonialism and for women's rights. She founded the Bantu Women's League in 1918, which later became part of the African National Congress Women's League.

Katie didn't go with her sister to the U.S. on the second tour. Instead, she returned to South Africa, where she spent a lifetime in medicine and nursing. In fact, she turned down an offer to study music and singing in England. As she stated: "I don't sing for people who do not see me."

Penny Dale is a freelance journalist, specializing in human interest and historical storytelling. She worked at the BBC World Service for 20 years, including three years as a reporter in her home country Zambia. She is now based in London, where she writes, makes podcasts and radio documentaries and trains journalists.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Penny Dale